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Wednesday, January 25, 2023

In Russia, anti-Kremlin protests reach fever pitch

After the arrest of popular governor Sergei Furgal, protests broke out for a second time as thousands took to the streets in Russia's Far East in a show of defiance and displeasure against the Kremlin.

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Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Russia’s Far East in a rare show of defiance against the Kremlin to protest against the arrest of a popular governor.

The huge rallies in the city of Khabarovsk on the border with China present the Kremlin with a growing headache, observers say, and come after President Vladimir Putin this month oversaw a controversial vote that allows him to extend his hold on power until 2036.

Protests against Russian governor arrest 

The protests in Russia’s Khabarovsk, a city of some 600,000 people, began a week ago following the sudden arrest of popular governor Sergei Furgal in a murder probe.

The arrest and indictment of Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal came after President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for two decades, this month, oversaw a constitutional vote that allows him to extend his hold on power until 2036.

While many expressed support for the arrested politician, some of the protest signs and chants were distinctly anti-Putin.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of all ages — including women with children in pushchairs —  marched through Khabarovsk’s hilly streets in temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), a correspondent said.

“I am defending him because I am fond of him,” said Anatoly Svechin, a 49-year-old Cossack, a member of the paramilitary group traditionally loyal to the Kremlin.

Read more: Arrest of Russian governor under murder charge causes chaos

Another protester, Gennady Vasin, called the governor’s detention an example of “political arbitrariness.”

‘Hearts demand change’

Anastasia Sokolova, 84, said she was against Putin. “We are not going to take part in elections any more if Putin does not release him,” she said, referring to the governor.

Smaller rallies took place in nearby cities and towns including Komsomolsk-on-Amur and the Pacific port of Vladivostok in next-door Primorsky Krai region.

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Video footage on social media showed a man marching through central Vladivostok carried a sign reading “Our hearts demand change”, a popular rock song that became a political slogan during Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms in the 1980s.

The Khabarovsk rallies lasted for several hours.

The crowds also massed outside the building housing the regional administration, chanting “Freedom!” as passing drivers honked horns in support.

Furgal, a member of the nationalist LDPR party, was elected with a large majority in 2018, trouncing a candidate of the ruling party backed by Putin.

Many of the protesters say the charges are politically motivated and question why investigators waited so long to accuse an official who should have undergone background checks.

Investigators say Furgal organised the murders of several businessmen in the Far East in 2004 and 2005.

The protesters called for a “fair trial” for the governor, and not in Moscow, where he has been held since his arrest.

“It’s our governor! And we will defend him!”, they shouted.’

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As with previous protests, the rally was not approved by the authorities, but police made no moves to disperse it.

Khabarovsk refuses ‘Putin’s endless lies’

Russia’s main opposition leader Alexei Navalny cheered the protests.

“An entire city — Khabarovsk — refused to believe Putin’s endless lies about the ‘justice’ of his courts and the ‘honesty’ of his elections,” Navalny said on Instagram.

Read more: Congrats and grumblings pour in on Putin victory in Russian constitutional vote

Another opposition politician, Dmitry Gudkov, urged residents of Moscow to take to the streets in solidarity with Khabarovsk.

“Moscow is with you!” he said in a video.

Political rallies in the capital have been banned. This week police arrested nearly 150 activists marching through central Moscow.

Protesters in Khabarovsk took to the streets even after authorities warned of the dangers of the coronavirus epidemic and after the FSB security service said on Friday it had prevented “a terror attack” in the city.

Last Saturday, tens of thousands also rallied in Khabarovsk and nearby towns, and hundreds protested throughout the week.

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The protests come as popular discontent is growing over the authorities’ handling of the coronavirus crisis and falling real incomes.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk